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THE HOCKEY SCHTICK — The Renewable Energy Reality Check

Schalk Cloete — The Energy Collective — May 23, 2013

Renewable energy is ideologically very attractive. After all, who would not want clean and “free” energy for everyone forever? Such ideological perfection can easily switch off the critical thinking of environmentally conscious individuals and this is exactly what we are seeing at the moment. This article will therefore attempt to reactivate some of that critical thinking.

Minimal impact on climate changeThe first point to be made is that the chances of renewable energy being deployed at a rate sufficiently high to have a meaningful impact on climate change are slim to none. Leading energy authorities such as the IEA, BP, the EIA and Exxon all agree that renewable energy other than hydro will probably contribute about 5% of the global energy mix by 2035. By that time, atmospheric CO2 concentrations will already be well past 450 ppm.

Even if all of these energy experts are off by 100% and renewable energy sources like solar, wind and biofuels contribute 10% of global energy by 2035, global CO2 emissions will still be increasing, rapidly driving atmospheric concentrations towards 550 ppm and beyond. Decarbonizing the energy sector by other means (e.g. CCS and nuclear) will be much more effective.The logical purpose of renewable energy is long-term energy security through serious market-driven deployment probably starting somewhere in the second half of this century. Continuing current attempts to combat climate change in the slowest, least practical and most expensive way possible (the heavily subsidized deployment of currently available renewable energy technology) is sure to do much more harm than good in the long run.The price of intermittencyIt is very convenient for renewable energy advocates to simply neglect the potentially very large costs associated with the intermittency of renewable energy. As a result of climate variability, the output from technologies like wind and solar varies substantially over a wide range of timescales – minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and even decades. Accommodating this wide range of variations will require a wide range of additional infrastructure from the following categories:

  • Fossil fuel power stations operating at low efficiency and low capacity factors.
  • A large renewable energy overcapacity with unwanted energy spikes being grounded.
  • A wide range of material and energy intensive storage mechanisms which also involve substantial energy losses in the conversion process.
  • Technically, economically and politically complex international HVDC supergrids capable of distributing energy from wherever the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

Currently, there is insufficient information available to accurately estimate the costs associated with the intermittency of renewable energy, but current storage technology can give some rough indication. Adding battery packs capable of smoothing daily variations will roughly double the price of domestic solar PV, while chemical storage options capable of smoothing out longer-term variations lose about half of the original energy in the conversion process. It is possible that battery prices fall over coming decades (although they may also rise due to material shortages and waste processing regulations), but the efficiencies of chemical storage cannot be improved much further. Thus, it can be estimated that a storage dominated solution will cost at least as much per Watt installed as current solar PV and most probably more.Insufficient energy return.

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